You know that feeling when you flop down onto a chair, tired and exhausted from a hard day’s work, yet feel strangely rejuvenated and fresh? Timor gives me that feeling in the bucketloads. You might think that’s from piling through patient after patient. Through lifting box after box from the Landcruiser to the classroom cum clinic, setting up and doing it all in reverse by the end of the day. And some days you’d be right. Other days, I get that feeling from chasing kids around the school with a broomstick and squeezy bottle of water.
I get such a sense of family and community being around these amazing individuals. I first met Nico (the dental therapist) while filtering through the dental supplies to bring to Maubisse. Complete with the cheeky smile, tooth gem on his lateral incisor and tough guy exterior, Nico is the best problem solver. Repairs to the suction unit with composite resin comes second nature, thus earning the title Nico ‘sempre diak’ (translate: Nico always good). Learning Tetum, there is a definite ‘go-to’ Ana to ask for advice. Ana ‘diak’ (Ana Paula) will give you sound translations that had me somewhat conversing with my patients. Ana ‘la-diak’ (Ana Tilman) might have you buying lollies when all I wanted was a bottle of water.
You have to be ready to get uber basic when it comes to lifestyle habits. Fortunately, I love putting my technology away and find a certain joy in living and eating simple. One trip to the Maubisse market yielded the tiniest, reddest strawberries and plump avocadoes. As not to offend the sisters, who were accommodating and feeding us, I gifted both of these items to them. I found that evening they already had mountains of strawberries ready for us to stuff our faces.
Those avocadoes though, I never saw those again. Count me moderately devastated. Safe to say then, I’m coming back for those avocados.
(The indefatigable Leslie will be joining another team this year – he really wants those avos! – Ed)
The TLDP’s volunteering year has come to an end after Team 5’s return last week. The team was big even by TLDP standards. The Australian contingent consisted of Team Leader, Dr Blanche Tsetong, returnee Dr Mary Tuituinnik and newbies, Dr Kim Hartley and Dr Lesley Leong, with Mr Keith Mentiplay arriving for Week 2. The Timorese division comprised the usual suspects – Mr Nico Pires, Ms Ana Tilman and Ms Ana Paula Salgado – with the addition of Mr Tino Morais for Week 2 – plus Dr Inda Dias rocked up for a couple of days during the first week and Mr Savio Moreira snuck in for a day and a bit . The ring-ins come to learn – we welcome all-comers!
Week 1 was spent in the Maubisse Subdistrict. After the quickest trip to Maubisse EVER – 2.5 hrs up the new, yet still unsealed road, the team was delighted to find that they could stay with the Carmelite community. In the preceding couple of years, our longtime partners had increasing difficulties fitting a team into their accommodation, and so TLDP teams were forced to try their luck elsewhere, with variable results. This time, the team arrived to a newly constructed building, which even had hot running water at times! As usual, it was an absolute delight to take their meals with the Sisters and the team was thoroughly spoiled with big breakfasts, feasts for lunch, scrumptious afternoon teas and multi-course dinners.
The team spent their first 2 days at Gruto School, which is down a steep, rough, dirt road. The views were fabulous. On the second day, as it was just down the hill from Gruto, Blanche, Ana Paula and Ana Tilman went down to see if there were any kids that had pain and wanted treatment. At first it seemed like it was going to be a bust – although plenty of kids dobbed in their mates, there were no volunteers. It just needed one brave child to break the ice…and then there was a full car!
The next 2 days were spent at Fleixa School, another school with a spectacular view, but with no electricity or running water. This was a large school on the main road to Same, and the team was flat out trying to get through all the kids, as well as see some of the adult members of the community. The difference between the more remote Gruto and Samoro, and Fleixa was stark – Fleixa’s kids had much more decay than the other two schools, probably because of easier access to junk food.
Day 2 in Fleixa fairly flew by, and it seemed like the team was going to finish work at a reasonable hour for a change. All the equipment was working, the sterilisation was finished and they were starting to pack up. Then Inda let in a ‘last-minute-easy-patient’. It took the combined efforts of one dental therapist and 3 dentists, plus an extra hour to extract that ‘easy’ wisdom tooth!
After an abortive attempt to work at the not-famous-Balibo School, the team’s final day in Maubisse was spent in the Sisters’ Clinic. Despite letters and multiple phone calls to the Principal, the team arrived after a gnarly drive up a goat track to find another spectacular view…. and the school deserted. At least the drive was interesting! The roads in the subdistricts are challenging and Leslie found this out on the job. In Sisters’ car, he had a near miss with a horse, got stuck in a rut on the steep track out of Gruto and fell into another ditch on the drive down from Balibo. It’s a good thing that he is blessed with unshakable aplomb!
The suction broke down on Day 1, necessitating hours of repair work; mysterious water leaks sprung from the dental units that were ‘fixed’ with gaffa tape and plastic cups; and there was a bunch of other niggly faults in the equipment that had plagued everyone for the whole year. Like all the teams before them, Team 5 treated this as par for the course, all the while counting down the days and hours to when our equipment guru, Keith Mentiplay, would arrive and make it all better. What made these little annoyances easier to bear was the team had managed to borrow 2 extra dental chairs from Solar Smiles while they were in Maubisse, and so the work still flew. Having 5 purpose-built chairs going at once made it easier to mentor clinicians without significantly slowing down the pace at which they saw patients. It was great! Thanks Solar Smiles!
The team left their beer in Maubisse. DISASTER. Luckily, this was mitigated by the arrival of two old friends – miracle-working equipment-whisperer, Keith, and long-time mentee, Tino – so Week 2 was off to a great start! Although the entire team stayed at Maubara this week there were so many people that they had to split into 2 locations to sleep. Dinners were raucous feasts with the Sisters at the Orphanage, which kept everyone super happy.
The second week was characterised by long commutes, dust-choked air and crowded cars. The TLDP’s School Dental Program includes 17 schools. Some of these are impossible for Nico and Ana Tilman to get to by motorbike – they are too far away and the roads are too rough – so a team is needed to help them out.
The team spent the first 2 days at Faulara, which is on the farthest edge of Maubara subdistrict. The drive took 1.5-2 hours each way and resulted in some extremely long days. There were lots of waterway crossings, and then a drive UP a waterway to the school. The first return trip shredded one of the tyres on our precious Troopie.
The teeth in Faulara were not too bad – again, probably due to the remote nature of the village. And there was electricity! Over those 2 days, the team managed to check all the kids, Ana Tilman performing her by-now-familiar toothbrushing pitch to all the classes, and everybody pitched in with treatment and mentoring. And in the meantime, Keith fixed and tested everything! The team was now working like a well-oiled machine, so they managed to finish early at Faulara, break down the clinic, and drive to nearby-ish Guiçu School to set up the clinic for the next day.
It was a huge relief to the team that Guiçu is closer to Maubara – only 1 hour each way on bad roads for the next 2 days! While most of the team was tasked to see the school under Mary’s watchful eye, Blanche and Keith were absent for most of the next 2 days. Blanche headed into Dili for meetings (and to buy tyres). Keith accompanied a grateful Tino on a 4-hour return motorbike adventure to Gleno Hospital in order to check out Tino’s non-functioning chair. He was able to get the drills, light and triplex working, but was unable to get the chair moving again – luckily, it is stuck in a good position! Keith also serviced all the equipment in our Maubara clinic and ran his eye over the clinic’s big generator, as well as the solar panels at the orphanage – the Sisters were so happy to have him there!
Working in TL requires adaptability, and our teams are characterised by a fluidity of roles. Team 5 was no different. All the dentists shared all the tasks, from mentoring of Timorese clinicians to accompanying Ana Paula to do a share of the examinations; Ana Tilman and Nico delivered oral health education either en masse or class-by-class; Kim, Nico, Ana Tilman, Mary, Tino and Leslie were at different times the work horses of the crew; and everyone functioned as steri-nurse and dental assistant.
It was a very busy 2 weeks and so the last day spent in Maubara clinic, winding down and taking stock was much-needed. Kim did a vital skill demonstration for our mentees, a few patients were treated, there was a bit of tidying up and the team had important personnel and team meetings, but essentially the day was for closure, and farewelling the Sisters for the year. Later that night the extended team, including translators Bony and Isa, reconvened for a rowdy end-of-trip-end-of-year dinner in Dili. After being kicked out of a cafe at the end of the night, the team lingered in the carpark – it is always difficult to say ‘Goodbye’ to our Timorese family.
Team 5 examined a total of 836 patients, extracted 348 teeth, filled 368 teeth, did 383 preventive treatments and 2 root canal treatments. YAAY team! We will see you all next year!